Is anger controlling your life? Anger is a natural human emotion, experienced by all of us. However, many people think of anger as a “bad” or “negative” emotion, which can prevent themselves or others from expressing it in a healthy and helpful way. You can use anger in a positive manner.
What is anger?
Anger is a natural human emotion, just like happiness, sadness and grief. Emotions are simply the feelings you get when something happens to you. Anger is the emotion you get when you think you have been treated unfairly for example.
When you get angry, your body releases a whole load of chemicals into your brain and they change the way your body is working. These changes can be:
- making your heart pump faster
- short ‘panting’ breathing
- higher body temperature and ‘sweating’
- shaking or trembling.
These changes are your body’s way of preparing you for ‘fight or flight’. They give you extra strength and alertness so you can protect yourself by either running away, or standing up to fight for your rights or personal safety, which is what people had to do in the past. Now, when something goes wrong for you, you still have those body changes but most times it isn’t a situation where you can either physically fight or run away so you have all those changes and no easy way to get rid of the feelings.
Anger is closely related to other emotions like fear and hurt or disappointment or frustration, but is sometimes the only emotion you choose to show (sometimes you don’t even realize you have the others). For example, imagine an iceberg. Above the water there is one small part of the iceberg that shows, this could be seen as anger. Most of the iceberg is actually under the water and these are the other emotions linked to anger like fear, hurt, embarrassment, sadness etc. Next time you are angry, stop and ask yourself some things like: Why you are really angry? Is it because you fear something? Do you feel you have been treated unfairly? Did someone say or do something that embarrassed you? Did something hurt your feelings? Did you feel a lack of respect for you and your needs? Does it remind you of another experience where you were hurt? Does that scare you?
Who experiences anger?
Everybody, young and old, male and female, feels angry at some time or another.
Many people think that men, especially young men, get angry more often than women. This is a myth. This belief may have come about because men and women tend to express their anger in different ways.
- Men and boys are given messages that they “should” be ‘tough’ and that it is unmanly to express feelings such as fear, hurt, rejection and other ‘painful’ emotions.
- Women and girls are generally taught that getting angry is ‘unladylike’ or unfeminine. This can mean that women are more likely to bottle up their anger or ignore it, while men lose their temper and let people know they feel angry.
Expressing anger – helpful
In spite of the way anger is often viewed it can be a helpful emotion in our lives. Anger can help you by:
- driving you to reach your goals, handle emergencies and solve problems
- helping you express stress and tension
- communicating to others what you are feeling
- motivating change towards social justice.
For some of us just staying alive is a full time job, anger has had an important part to play in survival. When people see their safety being threatened by enemies, anger releases a flood of chemicals into the brain. These chemicals provide extra strength to:
- run away
- to stand and fight off attackers
- help focus during battle
- reduce the ability to feel pain.
These reactions are part of the way your body reacts to protect itself and help to react to dangerous or threatening situations.
Anger is also useful to:
- notice you have been treated unfairly or been emotionally attacked by others
- help you protect your emotional well being
- allow you to stand up for yourself and your rights
- show disapproval when someone breaks social rules or ‘norms’. Anger communicates a message that some behavior is not OK, eg, you might get angry at when Joe “beats up his girlfriend” because you see violence in this manner as not OK
- lead to changes in the way our society runs. When a group of people get angry over the same things, they will often join together to change the situation, eg, marches against racism or protests against war.
Note: Your anger can be useful but only if you express it in a useful way. It is important that you don’t hurt yourself or other people or damage property.
Expressing anger – hurtful
Some people believe anger always leads to an explosion. This can result in frequent rages of violence or even child abuse. Other people believe they “should” cover up their anger because it is an “unacceptable” emotion to show. Anger used in these ways can become negative, destructive and can harm yourself, other important people or important things in your life.
If you frequently lose your temper you may find it can:
- be hard to keep friends, partners, family or employment
- end up making both yourself and other people miserable
- hurt yourself or others (often loved ones)
- lead to loneliness and unhappiness.
- lead to violence – this is illegal, you may be charged with assault, or other crimes.
Anger can take over your life!
If you feel low or have little control in your life, you sometimes use anger to manipulate or make others afraid of you. This can give you a sense of strength, power and control over the people around you. Using anger this way can hurt other people and yourself. It makes it difficult to keep friends or other relationships and can lead to feelings of guilt or shame. These feelings can lead to low self-esteem, and increased anger and loneliness. It becomes a vicious circle! It is never OK to use anger to hurt people in any way!
On the other hand, when people ignore their anger, it has nowhere else to go, and can often turn upon its owner.
When you bottle up your anger you may:
- find this method only works for a short period of time
- have depression, low self-esteem or anxiety
- use drugs and alcohol to “cover it up”
- feel ugly, horrible and hate yourself
- hurt or punish yourself
- explode – often over little things that wouldn’t normally worry you
- aim it at people who had nothing to do with the original cause of the anger
- let anger take over your life!
These strategies don’t allow anger to be dealt with in a healthy or useful way. This means anger continues to lurk like an emotional monster, waiting for opportunities to hurt you or someone else.
Physical health problems
When you stay angry for a long time, the chemical changes in your body keep going, placing strain on your body and can cause a range of health problems.
Short-term problems may be:
- stomach aches
- insomnia (trouble getting to sleep, or waking up many times during the night)
- increased stress levels and feelings of anxiety
- injury caused by fighting or doing things like punching walls or windows, etc.
Long-term health problems may be:
- heart attack
- depression, even possibly leading to suicide attempts
- using alcohol and smoking to ‘get you through’ and all the health problems they cause.
Some of these conditions could kill you, but any of them would affect your ability to have a happy, healthy lifestyle.
Things happen every day that make us feel angry. You can’t avoid feeling angry but you can make choices about how you are going to express your anger. Remember that abuse toward yourself or others is never an OK way of dealing with anger. Healthy choices are those that help you resolve a problem, or let you deal with your anger. What you do with your anger is your choice only – it is never anyone else’s fault.
Three steps that may help you deal with anger in a healthy way.
1. Feel the anger.
- Recognize that it is a normal emotion you are feeling because you believe you have been treated unfairly or that you are being threatened in some way.
2. Work out the actual cause of the anger.
- Who, why or what happened to make you feel angry? Identify when you first became angry. Was it because you are scared of something or your feelings were hurt?
- Are you feeling angry partly because of something that happened a long time ago (ex. childhood)?
3. Consider ways to deal with the cause of the anger.
- How could you try to explain or express why you are angry or upset?
- What sort of compromise could be made (recognizing your own and other’s rights)?
- Would it help to look at the situation from another person’s point of view?
- Make a list of your choices, and try to imagine what might happen if you tried them.
- Choose the one you think will be most beneficial for everyone involved.
- If you are angry because of something that happened a long time ago, or you can’t really work out why you are angry, you may find it useful to talk to a counselor.
It can be helpful to use assertiveness skills or learn about conflict resolution.
- Physical exercise – let anger out bit by bit by running, aerobics or sport.
- Have a good cry or scream (in a safe environment) – let your anger out all at once. This can help express feelings of fear, hurt or grief.
- Write a letter. List the things you’re angry about. Destroy it if you want! If you want to send the letter, it can be a good idea to put it away for a few days before you put it in the mail.
Research shows a connection between stress and anger. If you are stressed out, you are likely to get angry more easily. If you are angry most of the time, you are more likely to feel stressed and anxious. Things you find relaxing can lower levels of stress and anger.
- Taking deep even breaths – this tells the brain that the crisis is all over, and things can go back to normal!
- Count to ten – we’ve all heard this old favorite! It gives you time to get back in control of your feelings before you do or say something you regret. Whoops!
- Relaxation techniques like meditation and visualization Going for a walk or bike ride. Wander around and enjoy your surroundings.
- Take a warm relaxing bath.
- Listen to music you enjoy and find relaxing.
If anger has become a problem in your life, you may want to seek help. A therapist can help you explore personal issues that help you to stay angry most of the time. Sometimes life experiences can hold you back from moving on with your life. Many people get help when they feel the things they’re trying on their own aren’t working!
Violence is a learned behavior
The way you express your anger is often learned from the people around you. If children are raised in a home where they see or experience violence, it is not surprising that children might grow up to think violence is the way to express anger.
The more you are around violence, the more likely you are to think it’s OK. If your friends are violent you might become used to it and think it’s alright. If you see lots of violence on things like TV or video games, you might see it as a way to let out your anger.
The good news is that any ‘learned’ behavior can be ‘unlearned’. If you want new ways of managing your angry feelings, practice them regularly and the new behaviors will soon become old habits.
Dealing with other people’s anger
If you are with a people who are angry and you think they may become violent, it is important to make sure that you are safe before the violence begins. This can mean leaving the situation or telling someone you trust and who can help you. You can’t change the way someone else uses his or her anger. Your safety is most important.
Some people may blame others for their anger. They might call you names or say things like “you make me so angry” or “you know I get angry when you do that”. You are not to blame for the other person’s anger. It is up to everyone to take responsibility for the way they choose to deal with their anger, and change the way they act. You can’t change a relationship by changing the things you do, or by hoping to change the other person.
It can be helpful to listen to what the angry person is saying and, where possible, agree that she has a right to feel angry about whatever it was that upset her. This strategy can establish some ‘common ground’ and, as long as you are safe, you can help the person who is angry to calm down and talk calmly about the problem.
If you are living with a violent partner, it is a good idea to have a ‘safety plan’ worked out. This might include having some money hidden away, some clothing packed in a suitcase (so you can leave quickly), or organizing somewhere to stay in an emergency situation. There are many crisis and domestic violence services that can give you advice and assistance.
If you are living in a situation of child abuse, it is important to tell someone you trust and who might be able to help. Remember you are not the cause of violence, it is not your fault.
There will be times when angry strangers confront you, possibly at work or even driving your car. If an angry person confronts you, it is important to stay calm. If you lose your temper as well, this can make things worse and anger can escalate. You may like to use some of the skills outlined in conflict resolution. If you are concerned about your safety contact your local police.